Note taker: Pierre-Laurent Aimard

A French modernist rises to a very British challenge

IN 1976 Pierre Boulez, then already a cutting-edge musician in France, named an unknown 19-year-old to be the resident pianist in his elite Parisian troupe, the Ensemble InterContemporain. The appointment marked the teenager, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, as someone to watch. More than three decades later, having set down benchmark recordings of his patron’s work together with that of Mr Boulez’s teacher, Olivier Messiaen, and two other masters, Gyorgy Kurtag and Gyorgy Ligeti, both Hungarian, Mr Aimard’s reputation as his generation’s foremost pianist of contemporary classical music is beyond question.

Eighteen months ago, Mr Aimard was named the successor to the young wunderkind, Thomas Adès, as musical director of the Aldeburgh festival. Far from being the programme of rural tinklings in midsummer Suffolk that it might appear at first glance, Aldeburgh has been at the heart of contemporary music in Britain for more than half a century. The appointment raised some bushy eyebrows, not just because Mr Aimard is neither a composer nor British, but also because he and the continental avant-garde with whom he is principally associated have long derided or ignored Benjamin Britten, the revered British composer who founded the Aldeburgh concert series in 1948.

A highly successful interlude as the Lucerne festival’s artiste étoile in 2007 and a Messiaen retrospective in London last year proved that Mr Aimard enjoys unrivalled connections with leading European composers and performers and has an attitude to music-making that is highly pragmatic while still uncompromising. Even his critics are heralding this year’s Aldeburgh festival, which opens on June 12th, as one of the best programmes for years. New commissions include two staged works by Harrison Birtwistle. Elliott Carter, an American centenarian, will also be a prominent presence, with two days of concerts centred on the premiere of “On Conversing with Paradise”, a setting of poems by Ezra Pound. Nor will Mr Aimard be confined to a backstage role. Among other performances, he will be playing the British premiere of George Benjamin’s “Duet for Piano and Orchestra”.

In conversation, Mr Aimard is refreshingly frank about the position of contemporary “classical” music. He confesses that the music composed now will never be accepted in the same way as the “great works” of history. This is not, he says, because today’s composers are less good than their 18th- and 19th-century counterparts, but because they are doing very different things. The masterpieces of Europe’s imperialist ascendancy are part of a vision in which the duty of genius, whether political or artistic, was to impose its own conception of truth on the rest of the world. Today’s reality, much larger but vastly more fractured, says Mr Aimard, has little space for the monolithic grand narrative. That Mr Carter has a smaller audience than Tchaikovsky is of no importance; Mr Carter still has a very large audience.

Mr Aimard also admits that contemporary classical music is damaged by a “special interest” status upheld as much by its defenders as its detractors. His own early commitment to the avant-garde, he says, came from a “sense of duty to a chronically under-represented aspect of culture”. But he never intended to bind himself up exclusively in new music, a fact borne out in the consistently eclectic recital programmes he has been devising ever since his childhood teacher supplemented his diet of Carl Czerny, Johann Sebastian Bach and Bela Bartok with Karlheinz Stockhausen and Indian raga arrangements.

He points out that the privilege of working closely with Messiaen, Mr Boulez, Ligeti and, more recently, Mr Benjamin, has taught Mr Aimard that the chance to work and collaborate closely with living composers—a rarity for most concert pianists—is not one to be passed over. It is to everyone’s loss if musicians ignore living composers and their particular powerful ability to give shape to the “cacophony of modern lived experience”. Culture cannot be stored in a chocolate box, but must express the fears and hopes of the living.

It is this attitude, above all, that makes Mr Aimard such a good choice for Aldeburgh. The festival has always excelled in combining new music with old, allowing each to shed light on the other. Indeed, in so far as Britten originally conceived of it as an incubator for musical culture in Suffolk and England more generally, while there may be less of the composer’s actual music this year than before, his spirit seems to be as powerfully present as ever.

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